Welcome to an 18th century world.
One without electricity.
One in which –– like rural villagers shoving and pushing to reach a communal well for water –- strangers cluster around an extension cord snaking out of someone’s house who does have power. Every open public library is now a refugee camp, open early and open late, with every table and corner jammed with people clicking away on their laptops, notebooks and cell phones in a frenzy of collective, relieved connectivity.
I sit down this morning at the library, whose small parking lot is jammed as soon as it opens, and the gray-haired bearded guy beside me is the same guy sitting at the other end of the table last night. I move to another spot and see a neighbor, a retired woman on my apartment floor, who has no power. Her neighbor across the hall does. The person below her has none.
It makes no sense.
And Americans are big on individual freedoms, not suddenly enforced intimacy or inter-reliance.
The world has changed and we’re not ready for it.
Today, one-third of the American workforce does not have an office, cubicle, staff job or steady paycheck. Many of us are now – willingly or not – entrepreneurs and freelancers, temps and contract workers. Like many others in today’s shaky economy, without access to power and Wi-Fi, I can’t earn a living.
Most of us, certainly in urban areas, no longer have kerosene or oil lanterns at home or fireplaces on which to cook or gain light and heat. If you do not have a backyard or firepit or grill, and can’t cook outdoors, you’re toast. People who rely on medications that need refrigeration are endangered.
Here, we live in cities and suburbs designed for automobile transportation — crippled without ready access to gasoline, oil and electricity. You can’t gas your car or bus if the gas station has no electric power, so there are now long line-ups at the few stations that are able to stay open.
It was reported yesterday that two children, ages two and four, were swept out of their mother’s arms during the storm, their bodies found in a marsh. Bangladesh? Somewhere in Africa?
Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs.
A politician wept as she heard the desperate pleas of victims there shouting: “Where is FEMA? Where’s the Red Cross?” The Red Cross has already received $11 million in donations to help Sandy’s victims.
In the 18th century world, you rise when you once again have natural light and it’s safe enough to venture outside. You go to sleep earlier, having dined (if you can) and read by candlelight. Like some earlier ancestor did, I placed tall candles in front of a mirror, to double and reflect their glow.
There is a generator – thankfully very much 21st century – grinding away below my apartment window. It gives our 100-apartment, six-story building enough power to use our elevators, offer heat and illuminate our long hallways. Luckily, our kitchen was one working outlet and we have a gas stove, so we can cook. We also, now, have heat; in former power outages, becoming “normal” here, we fled the freezing temperatures of February for a local hotel. No one repaid us the cost of two nights there.
We paid $80,000 to buy the generator last year, a cost every resident here is sharing.
The storm’s aftermath – scarcity, fear and frustration — naturally, brings out the best and worst in people. There are fist-fights, already, at gas stations because it gas is now a more difficult commodity to obtain and has suddenly jumped again in price as damaged oil refineries shut down. Other people are sharing their homes, food, shelter and kitchens with one another.
A six-outlet power strip is de facto helfpul. (I brought mine to the library.)
One immediately sees the divide between those with electric power – literally, the powerful – and those without. I was able to go to my regular salon and get a manicure this morning and enjoy an important business lunch at a local restaurant, depriving the original spot we’d originally chosen because – right beside the Hudson River –– they’re closed right now.
I’m lucky that my husband, Jose, is a former news photographer who has survived multiple hurricanes for work. He knew what to do. It was he who filled the car with gas (many stations now have no power, creating long lines at the two local ones that have it) and put it into the garage; bought dozens of bottles of water; stocked the fridge and freezer, lined the balcony door with plastic and towels in case it flooded or the glass shattered. (Neither happened.) He’s been in a hotel all week across from his office at The New York Times, working double shifts for colleagues who cannot get to work with most of the subway so badly damaged.
I toured our town yesterday, gasping in dismay at the shattered ancient trees, the smashed wooden and metal fences beneath them. A cabbie tells me the Hudson River rose so high that it has damaged the computers in the police station – which sits a good half-mile from the river’s edge.
In the town just north of us, Ossining, a 40-foot sailboat sits on the train tracks where the commuter train normally ferries workers into Manhattan.
I was in Minneapolis, giving a speech to retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota about my book Malled, when the storm hit New York. I never turned on the radio or television – but read Facebook – where my friends in New York and New Jersey posted photos and updates that told me everything I wanted to know.
The number of dead remains fairly low, now at 38, but some of these are tragic – like the person who stepped into water that held a loose electrical cable.
Jose will be home tomorrow, now that the trains are running north to our suburbs again.
Some people are calling Sandy the “storm of the century.”
I doubt it. We’re only 12 years into this century and, given the tremendous violence of weather patterns here in the past few years – drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires – I think this is our new normal.
We have no money for it. We have no infrastructure for it. We have no offices or homes or modes of transportation – horses? carts? canoes? – built for it. Doctors no longer make house calls.
We have no idea, or methods for, how to bathe and cook or wash clothes or offer medical care without electricity; Bellevue Hospital, a major downtown Manhattan facility, shut down and had to transfer all its patients.
From The New York Times:
Bellevue Hospital Center, New York City’s flagship public hospital and the premier trauma center in Manhattan, shut down Wednesday after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, and it worked into the night to evacuate the 300 patients left in its darkened building. There were 725 patients there when Hurricane Sandy hit.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Alan Aviles, the president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, described third-world conditions, with no hot water, no lab or radiology services and pails of water hauled up the stairs to use for flushing toilets.
After pumping out 17 million gallons of water from the basement, the water is still two and a half feet deep in the cavernous basement where the fuel pumps apparently shorted out and became inoperable — unable to feed the 13th-floor backup generators, Mr. Aviles said.
Welcome to the 18th century.
Care to gavotte?